Somewhere Else Entirely -120-

On her next visit to the Beings, Garia asks some outstanding questions and receives some ambiguous answers. On the way she learns more about the Beings' plans and makes a surprising discovery about the Being she knows as Nurse.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

120 - Nurse's Tale

Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2015 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.



"I'm sorry, Jenet, this afternoon is just going to be plain boring for you."

"As you say, Milady. Would you mind if I did anything while you meditate or would that disturb you? I do not know sufficiently what you are doing to know if I would make a difference."

"That could be tricky, Jenet, if you stayed in here with me. Any noise could be a distraction, I think. I understand it is possible to get into a state eventually such that distractions can be ignored, but I'm nowhere at that level yet. Since I'll use the fire as a focus point, I don't think you'll disturb me by moving around very quietly, so long as you don't walk between me and the fire."

"A good maid always learns to move quietly and not disturb her mistress, Milady, but this is not a situation I have encountered before. I will be extra careful, Milady."

"Thank you, Jenet."

Garia had changed into a day gown with a wide skirt after lunch to allow her to sit cross-legged on the carpet. She did so, crossing her legs and smoothing out the skirt, holding her back up straight and resting the backs of her wrists on her knees. She looked at the fire, focusing not on the fireplace or the flames but somewhere beyond them.

The moving red flickers distracted her brain and allowed her to attempt to move into the appropriate state. She concentrated on her breathing, making it controlled and slow, feeling the air travel in and out of her lungs. The room began to swim in her vision, but there were so many concerns on her plate that a momentary thought distracted her and broke the sequence. She refocused her eyes and began again.

- - -

Garia looked around herself with interest. Perhaps "looked" is not the right word, since she could perceive her entire surroundings without actually moving and that included both above and below her... body. It was difficult to tell exactly what shape or size that body was, since it appeared to be mostly transparent... or was that just a function of the way she saw everything here?

Around her, apparently suspended in deep space, were the usual inscrutable collection of... things. She had no idea what they might be, they could have been chairs, computers or planet-modelling equipment for all she could tell.

Just as well plop a baby down in the middle of a kitchen and expect it to know what everything was. Cupboards? Toasters? Cutlery? The dog's bowl? Who can tell? I have a lot of learning to do here!

Nurse: Greetings, hatchling!

Garia: Greetings, Nurse. Good. This time I managed to come here because I wanted to, not just because I was asleep.

Nurse: You did this deliberately?

Garia: Yes. I tried several times before I found a way, but I don't expect this to work every time.

Nurse: I am surprised that you can even manage that much, but then perhaps I should not be so surprised.

Garia: Am I the first human to do this, then?

Nurse: You are not, but you are the first that I know of who is properly aware of your surroundings. Certain humans on Earth, usually males, in what you call the East have managed to partially extend themselves by using kinds of meditation but they do not know where they are and do not appear to perceive any of us. We are not sure where they think they are.

Garia: Meditation! That's exactly what I have been doing. The difference is that I knew where I wanted to go and what would be here when I arrived.

Nurse: Quite so. We do not interfere with these others because it would cause unwanted distractions on Earth, even if anyone were to believe them. Now, you have questions for me?

Garia: I have lots of questions, as you might expect. I know that there are some that you won't answer, though. I can understand the reasoning for it, even if I don't like it.

Nurse: Ask. Remember, if I cannot answer, do not try to read anything into my refusal.

Garia: I'll try and remember. Let's see. First, just how many worlds do you oversee? I don't mean you personally, I mean the whole lot of you.

Nurse: All of them. I can clarify that statement, we observe all the worlds in this galaxy. You should note that not all suns in our galaxy bear planets, not all planets are capable of bearing life of some kind and not all life is of a type that requires continuous monitoring. Still, in numbers that you can understand, it must be several billion.

Garia: Ouch. That's a lot of worlds, all right. So, how many of them are of particular interest? I mean, because they have some kind of civilization on them?

Nurse: A civilization is not a necessary pre-requisite for monitoring, hatchling. You think of civilizations in your own terms but the galaxy is so large that there are other ways in which a world could become of interest. There are civilizations on perhaps several hundreds of million worlds, of a kind that you might recognize, but many of them are of no interest to us.

Garia: I understand. My problem is that my own viewpoint means that I ask questions from that viewpoint. This whole thing is just so alien.

Nurse: Just so. If it is of some comfort, when I began studying your own species I found some difficulty relating to it because of my own experiences. It is a natural consequence of growing up a particular way.

Garia: All right, then, how about humans? Are Earth and Anmar the only worlds with humans on them?

Nurse: By no means, hatchling. Humans occupy many worlds in this region. Most are at a level of development little better than this one.

Garia: But, then, does that mean people have been sent to all those worlds from Earth?

Nurse: You err, hatchling, in thinking your world the source of humans. Like many of the species of Earth, humans were transferred there at a time when their ancestors used stone tools. [A pause.] If, however, you refer to specific transferees like yourself, then the answer may be yes. Transfers occur in many directions as required by the Great Plan but Earth is a source for many of them.

Garia: Oh, wow. If people back home knew all this it would blow them away. [A random thought.] What about other animals? The dranakh and frayen look as though they might have been Earth animals. Did they come from Earth?

Nurse: Most of the creatures you would term Mammalian evolved on an original world which was not Earth or Anmar. Many were transferred to those worlds while dinosaurs yet roamed the lands and subsequently evolved into their many forms.

Garia: But they are so different on each world! How can this be?

Nurse: That is one of the great mysteries of the cosmos, hatchling. For reasons we do not yet understand, species evolve at different rates on different worlds, and in different directions.

Garia: So that is why there is such a weird mixture here! As well as dranakh and frayen we have grakh and ptuvil here on Anmar. Grakh look like something that died out on Earth millions of years ago.

Nurse: That is correct, hatchling. They are indeed the same animal. On their native world they have what you would recognize as a civilization, but on other worlds evolution has taken different courses. On Earth a cosmic event ended their existence, on Anmar they are little different from those who were transferred here millions of years ago.

Garia: What about the others? I can see how rhinos and frayen are related, but dranakh? How did they learn telepathy?

Nurse: You look at the problem from the wrong perspective, hatchling. What are called Dranakh on this world and Hippopotamus on Earth are sentient beings on their world of origin. It is there they learned what you call telepathic communication.

Garia sensed a feeling of regret from Nurse as the Being explained.

Nurse: It is one of our greatest failures, hatchling. Long ago, before humans became of interest to us, we considered the Darayet to be of use to the Great Plan. On their home world, those you call dranakh are upright creatures resembling yourselves as much as they do hippopotamus. Transferred to Earth, they became large, dumb semi-aquatic creatures. Transferred to Anmar, they also grew in size and became quadrupeds, but somehow retained their method of communication even though they lost most of their sentience.

Nurse [after hesitation]: Certain of the original creatures were transferred to Earth in the same way you were brought here, during a period when animal forms were worshipped by humans. Although they appear in the records, their presence is not taken as real by human researchers of the present period.

Garia: You mean, there were walking, talking hippos on Earth? Wow! What happened to them?

Nurse: They were worshipped, as I said. There was little opportunity for breeding but much of a cultural nature was passed to the humans of Earth. Unfortunately much has since been lost.

Garia: Cultural? Is that what you call it, what I'm doing here?

Nurse: Indeed, hatchling, but in very specific ways. [A pause.] I must be careful what I say here. Your influence on the local culture has been much greater than was expected. I'm sure you understand the reasons why.

Garia: Oh, yes! It's because I'm a girl and not a boy. If I had been a boy then things would have happened much slower, more steady, and the war we have now would be more balanced. Is that right?

Nurse: Indeed, hatchling. Because you are culturally unlike any female in the nearby societies you have made a greater impact. You will change this society much faster than was originally planned.

Garia: Oh, yes, this great plan of yours. Can you tell me anything?

Nurse [after a long pause]: I dare not, hatchling. The situation would become very unstable, should news of what is planned reach the Solids under our care.

Garia: I may be a Solid but it seems to me that you are driving the levels of civilization upward, despite what you said earlier. I also remember some earlier talk about a threat to the galaxy. I think you're trying to do the same for the galaxy as Palarand is for Anmar, you're marshalling resources to fight that threat, and you have to use Solids to do it.

Nurse: I cannot deny it, hatchling. But you must not speak of this to the other Solids. I cannot tell you anything else about the matter.

Garia: Would it help your plan if I drove civilization here faster? I have been holding back certain things but I don't have to if it will help.

Nurse: This discussion is out of my scope, hatchling. If you are thinking of changing your mind then that may greatly affect the future and in ways we have not predicted. [Considers.] I will converse with the others who oversee this world. Your point is valid. Since you know about us, you may be able to offer more than your mere presence would suggest.

Garia [to herself]: It's a great pity I didn't have more on me when I came. I've been struggling to remember details of many subjects I barely remember from school, or that we haven't covered yet. Some books or even an iPad -

Nurse: You are here, hatchling. Do not wish for something which only exists in the past.

Garia: All right, I can see that this line of questions is making you uncomfortable. Let's try something else. I know my body is a clone, since I'm female and and I was originally male. However, I also have all my original memories of my previous existence. I accept that you can grow me another body with one of your marvelous machines but how did you manage to give me my whole memory? That's all in the past as well, isn't it?

Nurse: To a Solid that would seem to be the case, but in fact the effects of the past are preserved in the multidimensional manifold. Although they cannot be altered, it is possible to construct a machine to view and read portions of the record and apply them to the cognitive structure of a target Solid as the new body is grown.

Garia: Huh? You mean there's a dimension of memory?

Nurse: Not exactly. As well as the many dimensions of space and time you are familiar with as a Solid, there are many, many more. Some are of energy, some are of entropy, some are... other things. Between all of them the path of every particle in the galaxy is laid out clearly. One just has to be able to find the paths one is interested in.

Garia: I can't imagine what that would look like. Is this something I will be able to perceive in time?

Nurse [considering]: I may show you, hatchling. You are not able to [something] yet - in your Solid terms, you cannot yet stand on your own feet. [Muses.] If I were to [something something], then I can [something]. That should be sufficient. Consider this the first of your lessons in the space of multi-dimensions.

Garia: Oh, yes, please. That would be interesting, I think.

Nurse: Then I must assist you, as though you were a... hatchling of my own. You may find this to be complex and uncomfortable. If it becomes so, tell me and I will stop.

Garia: What must I do?

Nurse: Just relax and let me do it all.

The other Being moved to one of the nearby machines and did something obscure with it.

Nurse [aside]: We will need this device, otherwise what you will perceive will be incomprehensible. Don't worry, we all use it. There are just too many particles in the galaxy and this is a kind of filter.

The other Being moved to overlap Garia and she felt the most peculiar sensations. It was as if Nurse was fitting itself within Garia while at the same time Garia was fitting inside Nurse! Once the two had coalesced together Garia felt different somehow. She seemed a different shape and there were odd memories not of her own, of some impossible places.

We're coupled together so tightly we're inside each other! I guess I'm getting some of this other Being's memories!

Nurse: Quite so, hatchling. Once you have properly Emerged you will understand that any of us may have access to another's thoughts and memories, with their permission, of course. We do not do this merging process often except on occasions like this one. The fact that we are of different species makes the fit more complicated.

The being did something and Garia momentarily felt nauseous. Space swooped around and the view became even stranger. The scene reminded Garia of being in a dense, colorless jungle in space.

Nurse: Let me activate the device... ah. Observe.

The jungle dissolved leaving a series of writhing bundles of what appeared to be ropes travelling across her perception. Tiny fibers left and joined each trunk almost everywhere. They drifted near to one bundle.

Nurse: This is some small Solid object nearby, probably some kind of dust particle. Most of the tiny branches you can perceive are probably elementary particles being created and destroyed by the quantum foam.

Garia: If you say so. I guess I am attached to something like that, only much bigger?

Nurse: Indeed. Now, if we progress in this direction...

They flowed along the 'rope' until they reached the end, which was a flat, fuzzy surface.

Nurse: This is what you would call the present for this particle. Beyond here the destiny of this Solid has not yet been determined.

Garia: Ah! But you have machines, don't you? You can measure the position and movement of every particle in that surface and then project into the future, isn't that right? That's how you knew who to transfer and what would happen when I got here.

Nurse: An inspired leap of logic, hatchling, but correct in as far as it goes. Now, have you seen enough?

Garia: I have, and thank you for showing it to me.

Nurse: Then we must return to our normal orientation. You may consider this activity to be something like swimming. It is possible, but it can be tiring and it cannot be sustained for a very long time.

There was another nauseous shift and Garia found herself back in the familiar dark void between the worlds. Nurse did something and the device floated away, now deactivated. Some flashes of memory startled Garia and she concentrated on them.

The world was pastel and there was no horizon. Nearby were dwellings which looked like bubbles spun out of... candy floss? They appeared to be attached to the top of a very large cloud. In the distance, clusters of bubbles could be seen attached to another cloud. Flying between the clouds were -

Garia [astonished]: You're a fairy?

Nurse [primly]: That is one of the names we have been given, yes. Most cultures have some myths which have creatures resembling us, so we make use of that fact.

Nurse separated from Garia with a pop and the two Beings regarded each other. Garia could now perceive the Solid overlaid on the multidimensional structure of the other and realized that Nurse was very alien indeed. The body was vaguely humanoid, with a head, two arms at the top and two legs at the bottom. It was light gray and may have been scaly, although that wasn't clear.

The head had two large eyes which showed no whites at all. There was no nose structure or nostrils but a human-looking mouth beneath. There was no hair but odd feathery structures which stuck out above each side of the head, these might have been ears - or feelers. The limbs all looked similar and ended with hands or feet that resembled those of chameleons, with an equal number of digits facing either way for grasping. There was nothing to indicate reproductive organs.

The biggest giveaway were the four dragonfly-like wings which were fixed to the upper back and spread out each side beyond the reach of the arms. It was these that had made Garia compare Nurse to the shape of a traditional fairy. She had nothing to give her any indication of comparative size.

Garia: You look... beautiful. Is this how you appear when you visit Earth, then?

Nurse: Most of the time, hatchling, we conceal ourselves completely. Of course, as an Emerged Being I can no longer appear as I might if I were still a Solid. If I were still a Solid and manifested on Earth, I would die instantly.

Garia: Oh, of course! I'm guessing the temperature, pressure and gravity would all be wrong for you, wouldn't they? Oh, and the atmosphere would be lethal.

Nurse: Quite so. However, with the aid of a small device, I can make a... representation of myself visible to humans on Earth... or on Anmar. It is visions such as those that humans have reported as fairies, elves, sprites and many other names. It was a way for us to communicate with the more primitive members of your species. We do not do this any more since the apparitions would be viewed differently.

Garia: I'll say! [Curious.] How big are you? I can't get any idea of size here wherever we are.

Nurse: I can adjust the size of my image to be anything I require, hatchling. If you refer to the size of my Solid portion, then in your terms I would perhaps be about a yard high.

Garia: Oh, wow. I'd really like to ask you more about your home world. The flash I had of it looked very interesting but it probably wouldn't be an efficient use of your time, would it? Let's see, what else can I -

Nurse: You may not have the chance, hatchling. I perceive that some of your entourage has returned. Perhaps you should return to the Solid phase of your existence.

Garia: What? Oh, okay. I can come visit again, please?

Nurse: Of course. This is the only way you will develop into the Being you will become, at least to begin with.

Garia: Now how do I...

Nurse: There is a trick I remember from long ago when I had just hatched. There is a twist you must perform, just as you did when you came here. Do you not remember?

Garia: I have no idea how I got here. Never have.

Nurse approached and overlapped Garia slightly. The Being did something and Garia felt herself falling... to open her eyes still facing the fireplace. She twisted a suddenly stiff neck to see Jenet standing beside her, with Merizel's head poking through the door from the sitting room.

"Milady! You are all right?"

"Of course, Jenet," Garia said, stretching her arms out wide. "Why shouldn't I be?"

Jenet looked concerned. "There was a funny kind of shimmer just then. I'm not sure what I saw and it's gone now. As you can see, Lady Merizel has arrived."

Garia smiled. "Hi, Merry!"

As Garia stretched her legs out before rising, Merizel came into the bedroom.

"I'm not disturbing anything, am I? You seemed so still, squatting there on the carpet."

"It's okay, Merry, I decided to take the Queen at her word and make use of some of the proper relaxation techniques I know. Boy, have I -"

She stopped, suddenly aware of the huge amount of detail she had just learned and how privileged that information might be.

I can't talk about this to anyone, can I? On Earth this would be certain funny farm material but even here it could be dangerous. Damn.

"No," she resumed, "never mind. It's an advanced technique and I don't think Anmar is ready for it right now. Maybe later. So, anything to report?"

She stood, smoothing out the wrinkles of her gown, and took a seat one side of the fireplace. Merizel came and sat down the other side while various maids found posts around the room.

"Pel, Milady?"

"What? Oh, yes, please, Jenet. My mouth's dry from that... exercise and I'm sure Merry would appreciate a cup."

"I'd like to take Lanilla on, if I may, as an apprentice scribe," Merizel said as two of the maids headed off. "I do not know what level of expertize she may obtain, but then I never knew what I could do until I tried, either. If you may spare her from general serving duties."

"Of course, Merry."

"She may not do heavy work as it is," Merizel explained, "but writing is not heavy work. I do not think I would sit her in front of a typewriter yet, until her arm is judged to be healed, but there is nothing that would prevent her from improving her reading and writing skills. Why, she has already written letters to friends in Blackstone! Her writing is wobbly but only practice will cure that, as you know yourself."

"Hah. What I remember most is the aching fingers, Merry! Remember all those letters we had to write after the Battle on the Moor? It was just as well we had been sent all that extra paper. I think, if Lanilla is happy doing that then let her carry on. We have to convince these people that while being a servant is fine, there is always the chance they could make something better of their lives."

"Aye." Merizel nodded. "I have my own example to consider. If I had not thought to come to the palace that day, I would simply be another useless daughter burdening my family. And Milsy! Lanilla is not another Milsy, few could be, but we must change the way we think of ourselves, and that others think of us."

Garia and Merizel talked in general terms about personal affairs until they were interrupted a little while later by Gullbrand.

"My Lady." Gullbrand bowed, then turned to Merizel and bowed again. "My Lady."

Merizel tried hard to suppress a giggle. Garia rose and gestured.

"Let's make ourselves comfortable in the sitting room, I think. Gullbrand, in Palarand it seems that one should only acknowledge the most senior in any party or the person with the highest status or rank. Uh, respect for the others present is taken as read." As she led the way through to the sitting room. "Oh, there's an exception to that rule, of course, and that is the Queen. You definitely don't want to miss out the Queen, even when the King is present."

"As you say, Milady," Gullbrand said with a small smile, "It is ever prudent to avoid the wrath of the Queen."

"So, what have you to report this afternoon? I can spare you a bell or so and then we ladies have to get ready for the evening meal."

"Milady, I have spoken with many in the last few days, including Lady Merizel. I believe I now understand matters concerning your House and have already undertaken some small tasks, relieving Lady Merizel from the need. In particular, I have sought guidance from Kendar and others concerning a suitable property within the city to be a base for your house. I believe that I have discovered three properties which might meet your needs."

"You have? How on Earth did you manage that?"

Knowing Garia's origins, Gullbrand accepted her wayward reference without comment and continued.

"Milady, Kendar suggested that I talk to officials of the City Assembly. There are certain people there who account for property use within the city boundaries for taxation purposes and he said they may know of any which are presently unoccupied or available for sale. This is true, they have a small list and I ventured forth with one of their number who it seems is a Mason by trade but is a surveyor."

Gullbrand looked at Garia quizzically and she worked out what was worrying him.

"That's right, they don't have separate guilds for specialized town planners or people like surveyors, so they are just part of one of the other guilds. We have a mason planning the rebuilding of Blackstone. He's laying out streets, mines, sewers and everything."

"Ah, I see." He nodded. "We visited a number of properties which looked suitable - and a few which the surveyor thought were not suitable - and I believe three of them are worth your consideration. All are mansions but two are those of merchants and have warehousing attached. It occurred to me that you desired space for your other activities, as you explained previously. There was another property which may have suited even better, but it was in poor repair and would not be ready before late summer... after the rains, I believe." He looked apprehensive. "I have never experienced the rains, Milady. I am not sure that I will enjoy the experience."

"Why, that's great, Gullbrand! That's really quick work." Garia was brought up short, her expression one of frustration. "But the Queen is never going to let me go out and see them, at least not for a week or two. Is that going to be a problem?"

"It may be a problem, Milady. Some of the conversations I have had with Kendar concern your coming marriage and the effect it will have on the palace. I was not here then, of course, but he bids me remind you what happened at the time of the ceremony you call Harvest Festival. It seems with the numbers already confirmed to arrive that the bridal party will have to find some other place to reside during the festivities. If your House had a mansion at that time, it would be the natural place for you and your retinue to reside."

"But -"

Garia thought back to those summer days when the palace was filled with the Dukes and their families.

That was just three Dukes and their retinues! This place is going to be packed to the gills when the other Kings and such come to stay. Gullbrand's right. The whole city is going to be full of people...

"Let me guess. Those vacant properties will probably be done up and rented out to parties arriving for the wedding, right?"

"Exactly, Milady. And if we do not move fast they may all be taken. Cleaning and furnishing such places will take whatever time remains to us."

"I think we can work around your restrictions, Garia," Merizel said. "The Queen is letting you ride, remember?"

"Of course! Yes, a gentle ride out around the city streets -"

"- Surrounded by a dozen guardsmen, you remember."

"- naturally. You'll come, won't you? We can take as many people as want to ride. It will make a change from rattling around inside the palace."

Merizel nodded and Gullbrand bowed.

"Done, Milady. I await your instructions concerning the days and times that you desire to visit these properties. Kendar says that there is a palace guildsman who can accompany us, who will be of use examining the fabric of these buildings."

"Done, Gullbrand, and thank you for your hard work so far."

"My pleasure, Milady."

Garia thought he did look content and then remembered what his life must have been like serving Eriana. Compared to that, his present employment was practically a holiday, even if he had to learn unfamiliar customs and practices.

Jenet opened the outer door and entered, followed by Geska and Odgarda. All three curtseyed.

"My Lady, it will soon be time for you to bathe and change," she said. "I trust I do not interrupt anything?"

"Not at all, Jenet. Gullbrand has found some possible properties for House Blackstone. You can join us on a ride out to view some of them, can't you?"

"Of course, Milady, though these two are as yet unable to ride. I do not think that will prove a problem, however. With your consent, I would like them to be placed for a time in each of the departments of the palace, so as to become familiar with how things are managed here."

"That's a good idea, Jenet. Now, why didn't I think of that? Oh - what about their language problem?"

"Milady, they can both speak a little and have said that it may be better for them to learn if they must speak no other way. I judge that the palace servants will teach them what they need to know, at the same time as instructing them in their duties."

"That's arranged?" When Jenet replied with a nod Garia said, "Good. If they are going to live in Palarand they'll have to make themselves understood and fairly quickly. They know that, and your idea is the best way to do it." She rolled her eyes. "It will save me a headache, too. I really don't want to have more maids following me around than the Queen does!"

"You will still have two, Milady."

"Possibly not! Merry wants to try out Lanilla as an apprentice scribe. If that works out it will be back to just you and me."

Jenet looked at Merizel who replied, "Aye, Garia is right, Jenet. While Lanilla was in the Chamber of the Sick she learned to read and write and has learned well. I would not wish those days of learning to go to waste."

"I agree, Milady. But when we are nearer the wedding, I would wish for some assistance making Milady ready for her new life."

"Of course, Jenet. I'm sure we can arrange something."

Gullbrand said, "If you would excuse me, Milady, I will withdraw and let you prepare yourselves for our next meal."

Merizel added, "I'd better go too, I think. Coming, Tandra?"

As the room cleared Garia turned to Jenet. "Time for our bath, I guess."

~o~O~o~

"You're very quiet this evening."

Garia tightened her grip on Keren's middle. It seemed both familiar and strange doing this, something she could never have imagined in her former life. Wrapping herself around a man and having him hold her tight was endlessly satisfying but not anything that Gary would have had truck with. She tried to visualize what it must be like from Keren's point of view and failed. That part of her was long gone.

"I, uh, went to visit the Beings this afternoon."

"Hm? I thought you couldn't do that except in your dreams?"

"We-ell, I'm not sure I was actually dreaming those times. It was a different kind of experience. This time I decided to make use of the relaxation time your mother has made me do and see if I could get there deliberately - wherever there is."

"You have described it to me, before, and I do not think I can visualize the place you go. Did you find out anything new?"

"Well, of course." Garia had worked out what she could tell Keren and what to keep hidden. "They have detailed a kind of Nanny to watch over me whenever I go there and to answer my questions. I guess that stops me annoying the others who I saw before. Actually she or he calls themselves 'Nurse'."

"She or he?"

"Yes. Apparently those looking after Anmar don't really understand species which have males and females so they brought in somebody whose species does have them. It turns out that Nurse is a kind of expert on Earth and knows a lot about humans. I'm getting a lot of little nibbles of information but I'm not sure what I can tell you."

"As we previously agreed, you'll have to decide yourself what to tell us."

"Yes, but it's not the same as the Council of the Two Worlds. I'm getting lots of random bits of information, half of which I don't really understand anyway. The other half either isn't interesting or important or is too dangerous to tell."

"That's not very helpful. Is there anything you can tell me?"

"Let me see... Nurse, like I said, is from a species with males and females - men and women, they might call themselves. But they aren't human at all - I caught a glimpse of his or her home-world when we were doing... something. It appears to be a gas giant like Gontar, perhaps. There's no solid surface on those worlds and the whole lot lives in the clouds of the upper atmosphere."

"Clouds? How is that possible? Wouldn't they fall straight through?"

"It's not that simple. They aren't clouds of water, like we have on Anmar or Earth, but clouds of... um. I have no idea how to explain this to you, Keren. Let's just say they are much denser materials, stuff you won't find around Anmar at all. Imagine perhaps a kind of thick, pink foam. There's no water there, the air would kill you and the temperature is well below that of freezing water. It's really alien."

"And this being lives in such a place? I do not know enough to know if I should be amazed, Garia. What do they look like, then?"

"A body sort of the same shape as ours, with two arms and two legs, but gray in color. There's no hair but they have..." These people don't know what feathers are. "...things sticking up from the sides of their heads? Perhaps like the tops of reeds we have growing in the ditches. I don't know if they are ears or feelers like insects have. Oh, and they have wings, like some insects, that stick out from their backs."

"Wings? Aye, if I lived on a cloud then I would need wings to get around. Do you trust this creature?"

Garia hadn't thought of that at all. She thought back to their extremely intimate encounter and made a judgement.

"I think so," she replied. "I can't describe it at all but we had to get very close at one point - if close means anything where that happened. What I've just described to you comes from a stray memory I noticed when that happened. To put it in simple enough words, we were inside each other's heads and I think I'd know if Nurse had been keeping anything from me."

Even as she said it she knew it could not be true. Hadn't Nurse said there were things it could not tell her? Why had she not had a whiff of any of that when they were joined? Thinking further, she realized that it was little different than Gary's parents telling him about Santa Claus. He had believed them implicitly, hadn't he? Parents had to be trusted, didn't they?

However, she didn't believe that Nurse had deliberately deceived her, merely concealed somehow that which it did not wish her to learn. There seemed little point explaining that Keren to at the moment.

"As you say. Did you learn anything else you can tell me?"

"I learned that there is indeed a Great Plan and that they have been moving creatures around from world to world for literally hundreds of millions of years, perhaps much longer. Many of the animals you are familiar with did not originate on Anmar. Humans, dranakh, frayen, grakh, all came from somewhere else entirely. Most of those have or had civilizations on their home worlds."

"It is what you guessed all those months ago, isn't it?"

"Yes, but the scale is so much bigger than I imagined. Oh, and there's something else, Keren. It wasn't explained to me in so many words but Nurse is frightened. I sensed fear when it was talking about the plan. If the Great Plan doesn't work, then everybody and everything will die. That is why they have been forced to interfere in all these different worlds as they have. We are just a tiny part of it but we are important too."

Shocked, Keren pushed Garia away and held her at arms length.

"Are we in danger, Garia? Is this what this is all about?"

She shook her head. "No, not personally. I get the sense that the events they are trying to prevent are many thousands of years in the future, perhaps even farther." As Keren relaxed, she added, "But it will take them that long to prepare the galaxy for whatever is going to happen. Building civilizations, learning technology, discovering the laws of the universe - that all takes time, Keren. That's why they were so excited when I turned up here as a girl, since that apparently makes success that bit greater. I have no idea why."

"Hmm. We have discussed this before, have we not? Very well, there is little either of us may do about the situation other than live our lives as we see fit, and trust to your overseers that what we choose to do is to the benefit of their plan. Come, let us talk of more pleasant things. I see by the look on Jenet's face that she has indeed been petitioned by the commander of your armsmen and returned him an agreeable answer. May I assume that you approve?"

"Of course! I was wondering what was taking him so long. Now, I don't know the customs in Palarand governing such things, but what about all these weddings? When are they likely to happen? Individually, or do they wait until ours is complete?"

"Don't ask me, Garia. Perhaps we had better ask someone in the morning. What do you think?"

"It's an interesting situation, but everybody will be concentrating on my own ceremony and their weddings might get lost in all the fuss. Yes, perhaps a word with the Queen might be a good idea."

Feteran approached and saluted.

"My Lady, I must ask you formally if I may marry Jenet."

"Commander, since we are being formal, I officially approve. Feteran, Jenet, you both have my congratulations, I'm sure you will both be very happy together. As it happens we were talking about weddings and possible collisions."

"Milady?"

"At Spring Dawning, which you might remember I know absolutely nothing about, it seems that quite a few people in House Blackstone will be marrying partners. This will be your day as much as mine and I don't want your occasion to disappear in the fuss over me and Keren."

"Milady, we -"

Garia held up a hand. "Leave it, please. We'll find some suitable arrangement so that everybody gets their share of the, uh..." Damn. They have never heard of limelight, have they? "...excitement. Let me organize this, okay? I don't think I can do much else but I ought to be able to do that much for my closest retainers."

Feteran bowed. "As you command, My Lady."

~o~O~o~

Somewhere else entirely, a Being called a meeting with his superior.

Nurse: Thank you for sparing the time, Co-ordinator.

Co-ord: I can spare a moment or two. It concerns your new charge? How is it?

Nurse: She is progressing satisfactorily, Co-ordinator. She will make a great addition to the Commonwealth once she has fully Emerged. For a Solid, she has a remarkable grasp of her situation.

Co-ord: But she asks a lot of questions, does she not? I remember my own emergence.

Nurse: Just so, Co-ordinator. However, something she said in passing has given me to think. I know her species as well as any might and I may have had an idea. If I may explain?

Co-ord: Proceed.

Nurse then outlined his thoughts and explained the possible gains and losses. The Co-ordinator was first astonished and then thoughtful.

Co-ord: Since she has knowledge of us and of our plan, it would seem that our range of possible actions is much greater than we had anticipated. This is an interesting notion, Nurse. I will authorize you to conduct the necessary groundwork to see if your idea is feasible. You say the time available is limited?

Nurse: In human terms, yes. However, I have access to the computational power of both worlds and the required calculations will take negligible time. There are alternative and backup strategies available at all points and even if nothing happens, we are still better off than we were before.

Co-ord: Agreed. Approved.



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